Recently we’ve been asked several times about streaming live to Facebook or YouTube vs. using a custom or commercial content distribution network (CDN). This article, by DaCast – a commercial CDN that resells Akamai services – does a great job explaining the pros and cons of FaceBook and YouTube streaming versus using a commercial CDN. However, particularly when it comes to webcasting live events, it misses some very important points and completely ignores the option of building a custom CDN, which can often be the best solution. If you’re researching streaming options, the article and this post will help to educate you before you start the conversation with a webcast service provider. With that said, here’s the information we feel they missed.
One of the biggest issues we feel the DaCast article overlooked is the fact that Facebook and YouTube may cut off a live stream with no way for the broadcaster to resolve the issue. Facebook and YouTube have advanced content filtering algorithms that are constantly looking and listening for copyrighted material. These protect copyright owners from having non-licensed people post their protected materials. So, for example, the average YouTube user can’t post a Hollywood movie to their channel. Likewise, YouTube users can’t produce their own music videos for the copyrighted music that a record label owns. This can adversely affect a live webcast, particularly of an event. For example, a speaker at a conference may be walking up to the stage to a popular song that the event has licensed for that purpose. There is no way (currently) to let YouTube or Facebook know that the event is using the copyrighted music in a legal manner, and their content filtering algorithms may kill the feed (and block it from restarting). Until there is a way to pre-clear that the feed can’t be cut off – this makes it difficult to trust those channels if there is a lot of money or public exposure riding on the stream.
“Live Streaming” doesn’t always mean sending live video from one location out to the world. Without getting into the copyright or content ownership issues, it’s easier to point out that sometimes a producer doesn’t want the public to be able to view the stream. Most of the commercial CDNs think of this in terms of putting the content behind a pay wall in order to monetize it. However, often that isn’t the case either. Some corporate events want to be able to webcast their events privately. For example, a sales meeting we supported wanted to stream the event, to allow their salespeople to attend online if they couldn’t attend in person. The online stream had to be live, high definition, worldwide, and protected behind a login system that had nothing to do with visitors paying to view the content. While we could have accomplished this with a commercial CDN, in the end it was more cost effective to build a custom network for this one time event. From the show-site, we streamed the video to a local data center, which then distributed it worldwide using Amazon Web Services, and we limited the stream to only be viewable from a secure website built for the event.
With the advent of cloud competing platforms like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud, a third viable options exists for distributing a live video stream. Until recently, it would have been difficult for a small provider to provision the necessary resources to support a temporary custom CDN that would be hosting a worldwide webcast. However, today it can be more cost effective – depending on the requirements – to spin up a custom network using services like AWS. Amazon has their own CDN that can distribute live streaming video worldwide as well as any commercial webcast provider, and they even offer pre-configured server images that include popular streaming software packages like the Wowza Streaming Engine. These allow technicians with the right skills to provision their own CDN for a few hours to support a webcast, and then remove it as soon as the event is over, only paying for the server time and bandwidth that was used. Very tech-savvy providers can reduce the cost even further by building their own streaming servers on AWS or Google Cloud using open-source software combinations like Ubuntu linux and NGINX.
Webcasting a live event in any sort of high quality way – even to Facebook or Youtube – is almost never free. Even doing it from a cell phone means that someone is paying for the data charges. Webcasting a production video feed means the event producer needs to consider: (1) the internet service charge; (2) the cost of the on-site video equipment and labor to both produce and then encode and transmit the feed; (3) the cost of the distribution network and channel. Facebook and Youtube only cover the distribution and channel, but they do it in ways that limit the options of controlling the audience or the content that may appear next to your stream. Some commercial CDNs provide the capability to white-label the stream, control where it can be viewed from, and put it behind authentication, but they may charge a large premium for doing so. With a custom CDN, the producer has full control, but it can be expensive to configure. So, if the producer wants to have control over the stream, the question then becomes whether it is more cost effective to build a custom CDN for a one-off event or whether it is faster, cheaper and easier to use the capabilities of one of the commercial providers. The right answer varies from event to event.
Depending on the CDN provider, the main cost drivers of live streaming usually come down to a few factors. The first of these is the ability to limit the channel to only a few endpoints. To watch a video online, you need player software that has access to the stream. Most of the time you don’t even notice this, because it’s just part of a web page you visit. However, the capability exists to limit a stream so that it can only be viewed from a single instance of player software that exists on a single site (which you can then protect with authentication). The next factor is the size of the audience and the bandwidth charges. The ability to white-label the stream is the next factor, and for corporate events it is often an essential one. A lot of the commercial CDNs offer low-cost alternatives that require the use of their player software or their logo to be visible as part of the stream. If your event doesn’t want someone else’s logo on the stream, then the ability and cost of using a white-labelled stream is required. The final factor to consider is monetization options. Different CDNs have different capabilities, including services like integrated advertisements or pay-per-view plugins.